8 of the best “off the beaten” path spots in The Bahamas. The route includes a plane wreck, an island full of iguanas, stroking sharks, feeding turtles & stingrays, swimming with pigs & snorkelling in the cave lagoon paradise that is James Bonds ‘Thunderball Grotto’.
The Bahamas, sailing from Grand Bahama to Great Exuma.
In November 2017, I was invited by a friend to join him on his boat to sail from Florida to the Bahamas. The premise was to help take the yacht, ‘Red Hot’ from its home in Chicago to the Caribbean. Here she was to take part in a number of sailing regattas across the region. I was a novice sailor, having taken my Competent Crew course in the UK earlier that year. However, I always have a desire for adventure & am up for anything new.
There were 3 of us on the boat & to say it wasn’t easy is an understatement. As a result, I did not fall in love with sailing in the 2 weeks I spent with ‘Red Hot’. But that’s a story for another day.
“I did however fall in love with the Bahamas & this post documents our journey through the archipelago & the beautiful experiences that the islands have to offer. Here I am sharing my pick of the 8 of the best “off the beaten” path spots in The Bahamas”
What do you need to know?
The Bahamas is comprised of 700 islands & over 2000 rocks & cays. It spans a distance of 100,000 square miles of beautiful blue waters. Therefore, I did not see nearly all of it but would love to return to explore further. Here, I am sharing my picks from the places I visited on my epic sailing excursion.
Our journey had started with an overnight sail from Fort Pearce in Florida to Port Lucaya on Grand Bahama. The adventure included losing our wind gauge in the first 15 minutes & a very close encounter with a container ship in the dead of night. Both are experiences I would not like to repeat! The beauty came from being alone on the ocean & watching the bioluminescence create a display of glitter in the water. Through the night, flying fish followed us, leaping out of the waves along the way.
The story of my personal journey to Great Exuma is a legend which I will share in a future post. Here, I have focussed on some of the amazing islands, mainly in the Exumas, that I was fortunate to experience along the way. Many are only accessible by boat & I hope to inspire you to explore the Bahamas this way if you ever have the chance. The order reflects the sequence we visited.
Nassau, Paradise Island
On the fourth night of our trip, we made it to Nassau. Arriving by small boat was a daunting prospect as the sunset on another hard day’s sail. Of course, our timing also corresponded with the exit of 3…yes 3 massive cruise ships!
“We manoeuvred our way into the port in what had become our trademark shambolic fashion. Two out of three crew lacking experience & a short-tempered skipper are not an efficient combination!”
Nassau is a bustling hub & the capital city of The Bahamas. Any trip here will not be complete without a visit to this modern metropolitan centre. On my first holiday in the archipelago, I was island hopping in the only way I was able, by plane. This meant numerous stops passing through Nassau for the odd night between airline schedules. Some describe Nassau as paradise but for me, there are many more places in The Bahamas which fit this description.
Through my time I have enjoyed walking around the impressive aquarium labyrinth of the Atlantis Hotel. Here you can find the world’s largest open-air marine habitat. Other activities worth your time are a delicious meal at the Fish Fry and snorkelling to see sculptures & plane wrecks. On this occasion, it was home to a lesson on how to manoeuvre the dinghy in a very busy boating marina.
1. Allen Cay
Thirty-seven miles south-east of Nassau lies Allen Cay. Allen Cay is a small sand island but interestingly home to a colony of iguanas. Their official name is the North Bahamian Rock Iguana & they are only found on 3 small islands within the area. Allen Cay is the biggest & easiest to access. Unfortunately, they are an endangered species & a classic example of one which has been affected by human contact. On tours, they can be fed & are particularly partial to grapes on the end of sticks. The iguanas are bold & the beach is covered in them. Despite not having any food, they still came close to say “Hello” when we arrived.
2. Norman’s Cay
Our next island of paradise was Norman’s Cay. Exploring in the dinghy found us the only people on a pristine white sand beach, Here we discovered the lagoon as rays darted around on the seafloor. The highlight, however, was a wrecked aeroplane in the water nearby.
“It turns out Norman’s Cay was developed in the 1970s as a refuelling station for the notorious drugs baron Pablo Escobar.”
The island became home to a fortress & a 1 km long runway where the planes could land & refuel on the smuggling route between Colombia & the United States.
In 1980, this ex-World War 2 transport plane missed the runway, making its final resting place in the shallow waters off Norman’s Cay. The smugglers quickly emptied the plane of its illegal contents. Soon afterwards the whole operation closed down after pressure from the US & Bahamian Governments. Now the wreck is settled here for anyone who can find it for snorkelling & exploring.
As dusk settled, the tide was low enough to see the remains of its fuselage poking out above the water. It literally did look like a giant skeleton emerging from the sea. This is where my Go Pro came into its own as we slowly circled in the dinghy. I was able to capture the wreck in its full glory. The propellers, engines & wings are all surrounded by coral & fish which have made the vessel their home. You can see it for yourself on my Video Diaries.
3. Compass Cay
Our next stop was onto Compass Cay, for a Landing Fee of US$10 per person. The highlight was the group of Nurse Sharks who have made this Cay their home. The Nurse Sharks are known as “bottom feeders” as they stay close to the sea bed, sucking up small creatures for food. The owners of Compass Cay regard these animals as pets, but they are wild. The sharks can grow as large as 14 feet long. It is a common activity to get into the clear water at the dock & swim alongside these impressive creatures.
On my visit, as a larger tour group arrived, the guide started to feed the sharks. Before long a boy was bitten on the foot. It was not a serious injury but was caused by the food being thrown too close to his toes. He was bleeding & clearly very distressed by the experience.
“It was a timely reminder to be careful if you plan to interact with the sharks. I was perfectly happy to just enjoy the interaction & leave the feeding & swimming to the other visitors.”
We ended up spending more time than intended in Compass Cay. We bought some freshly caught fish from the local fishermen. As we were enjoying our delicious lunch, I noticed that the boat was sitting at a weird angle. Panic ensued as we realised that our keel (the deepest structure on the yacht which gives the vessel its stability), had got stuck in the sand at low tide. It turned out we were about 10 metres away from where we should have dropped the anchor to be safe!
There followed 8 hours of literally hanging around at the (low) side of the boat, so we didn’t cause any damage. We waited for the tide to come in enough, so we were able to refloat. Finally, at 11pm we were free, sailed 10 metres away & dropped anchor in a safe spot for the night. Like I say, that’s a story for another day but does give you a flavour of the hazards of sailing in the area. The bright azure blue sea often equates to shallow waters which can cause chaos when you’re in a small racing yacht with a very deep keel!
4. Big Majors Spot
Big Major Cay is pretty much in the centre of The Bahamas. It is also now a legendary island with people flocking to witness the spectacle that is the swimming pigs! The story goes that a resident of nearby Staniel Cay started to keep pigs but had complaints from local residents about the smell. The solution was to ship the animals to a small, uninhabited island nearby. The pigs ran free & the local population had a regular supply of free-range pork.
“As a result, it was discovered by tourists who arrived by boat, saw the pigs & started to offer food from the water. This attracted the beasts into the sea & hence was born the island of the swimming pigs!”
When you visit, prepare for the beach to be swamped with people. My advice would be that if you are travelling independently, aim to arrive as early as possible. The tours will often come from the larger islands so to avoid the crowds, the earlier or later in the day, the better. Although we arrived early, it was still busy & all we had to tempt the pigs our way were the skins of the bananas we had eaten for breakfast en route. If you want to get close, bring some decent food. Some of these pigs are huge & clearly take full advantage of their newfound fame. If I’m honest, as with many of these over touristy areas, it left me feeling a bit cold & we only stayed for about 20 minutes.
5. Staniel Cay
We arrived in Staniel Cay on our 9thday at sea & it was our first taste of civilisation for a while. It was exciting to see shops, find a bar at the Yacht Club, eat out, play pool & enjoy the different ambience. The classic James Bond film “Thunderball” famously features the island. That afternoon, we discovered why, when we went exploring in the dinghy.
The Thunderball Grotto is only accessible by boat & looks very unimpressive from the outside. You need to swim through a gap in the rocks to enter this magical place. Inside is a chamber, filled with water but with holes everywhere, in the ceiling, in the walls & under the surface of the water. From above, the roots of trees are hanging down adding to the atmosphere.
“As the sun cascades in from all the holes, the cavern is lit up, from above & underneath. As you survey the area from above the water it glows around the edges where sun outside appears to light up the sea from below”
Under the surface is a flurry of activity with fish bringing the grotto to life. Swimming around to explore was a really magical experience.
It’s important not to snorkel in the grotto during high tide as it can be dangerous & you could be swept out to sea. It is possible to swim under some of the rocks by holding your breath. However, please make sure you know where this is safe before you try. Without a guide, I was too nervous & unconfident to give it a go.
6. Little Farmers Cay
“The next morning, after a breakfast of rum & freshly harvested coconut water (love the Caribbean!), we headed to nearby Government Pier for a close encounter with the turtles.”
Here, we were given masks, went foraging for live conch & then used them to attract the local turtle population.
The stingrays circled & were keen to get involved but it wasn’t long until a lone female turtle came to seek us out. She was very picky & only wanted to take food from the guys. It was a fantastic experience, made more special by the lack of people. Just being us with the rays & turtles, I left with a very different feeling from the swimming pigs’ interaction.
7. Galliot Bank
Not far from Little Farmers Cay, we went to explore Galliot Bank, also known as the “Mile-Long Sand Bar”. This is only a feature during low tide when the sandbank emerges as a beach in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, we missed the tide when it was at its lowest. However, it was shallow enough to make it feel like we were walking on water. We had a bit of fun before packing up for our final sail to Great Exuma.
8. Stocking Island
Our final stop was Georgetown in Great Exuma & it was my second visit to the area. The highlight for me was a short trip by boat to Stocking Island. You can get a water taxi across Elizabeth Harbour which takes about 5 minutes. Here, you find the Chat ‘N’ Chill bar on the pristine white sand beach.
“Look out for the pile of conch shells on the shore as this is where you can meet & feed the stingrays as you paddle in the water.”
If the kiosk is open, they also do a mean ceviche conch salad. If you are there on a Sunday, try the excellent Sunday Pig Roast. As you can tell, I visited a few times!
Where next time?
I spent 2 weeks sailing down the chain of islands which make up the Bahamas. I already know there is still plenty more in this beautiful archipelago that I would love to discover. It was an amazing experience & reinforces how much more there is to the Bahamas than the big resorts. In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to see the smaller islands in this stunning region, then please take up the opportunity. You will not regret it. Sailing is the ideal way to do it & you can see the area in all its glory in my Video Diaries.
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